House of Lords reform: three tests for three political party leaders

Cover of the House of Lords Reform Draft BillThe fate of the current 789 members of the House of Lords may depend on the future course of the Government’s proposals for Lords reform, but so too may the fate of the three main party leaders.

For each of them Lords reform offers both an opportunity and a threat. For David Cameron the opportunity is to push on with his mission to change the Conservative Party, modernising it in a continuing effort to shed the problems that have resulted in nearly 20 years passing since it last won an overall majority. Many in the Conservative Party, especially in the Lords, are opposed to the introduction of elections for the upper house, but what better way for Cameron to show he is different than by being seen to be at odds with figures from his party’s past?

The threat, of course, is that – as has happened on some other issues – the opposition is too great and Cameron has to back away, returning to traditional Conservative lines, weakening both his modernising credentials and his overall position.

For Ed Miliband the situation is very similar. Lords reform offers Miliband the opportunity to hold out a friendly hand to Liberal Democrats, to portray himself as a genuine pluralist rather than a traditional Labour tribalist, and as someone different from the Blairites who so often talked Lords reform but never were quite willing to actually vote for it. Having David Blunkett and John Reid criticise him would do no harm at all in showing he is different from Labour’s past.

Unless those “constitutional conservatives” (to use the phrase from Progress) turn out to be too powerful of course… and Ed Miliband is left in the position he was caught in during the AV referendum, with his team blowing hot and cold on him appearing alongside Nick Clegg as arguments went on within Labour.

Whilst for both Miliband and Cameron Lords reform offers the opportunity to show that they are leaving their political pasts behind – and the risk is they end up looking weak – for Nick Clegg the possibilities are slightly different.

The surprisingly large number of rebels amongst the ranks of Liberal Democrat peers, opposed to the idea of elections for the Lords, provides the Deputy Prime Minister with the opportunity to burnish his credentials with grassroots activists. Many still feel sore about Clegg’s line on tuition fees (as shown by the big drop in his ratings in the Liberal Democrat Voice surveys of party members) but also are angry at the anti-reform rebels amongst the party’s peers. So like Cameron and Miliband, Clegg too has the opportunity to use Lords reform to strengthen his position. Like them too, he faces the risk that if he pushes hard for reform and fails, he will end up weakened instead.

For all three leaders, this political high-wire act will generate plenty of controversy and interest even for those whom the nuanced differences between open lists and STV for Lords elections is soporific rather than vital.


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